The hardest future transport strategy to deliver might just be business as usual

When things don't go to plan it is time for a new strategy. The realities of new technology, changing demography, rising fiscal stress, and evolving social attitudes are that most UK transport strategies need a fairly fundamental revamp. To create strategies relevant to uncertain and changing times, transport authorities need to extend their influence beyond traditional boundaries. How can transport authorities ensure that strategies are about what happens on the ground rather than what sits on a shelf?

The London Mayor's recent review of evidence to inform the new transport strategy describes many supply side measures as "under our control" and many demand side measures as "not under our control" or "able to influence". Transport Scotland has said it wants to address the strategic challenges facing transport to "take advantage of any opportunities that present themselves". These and other transport authorities are making tentative steps towards more flexible and resilient approaches. However, the authorities must work both within their statutory remit, and what the public currently expects them to deliver.

Public expectations are changing faster than the strategy development process. The technology for drone taxi services, and many other radical new and controversial changes, are largely in place. How can the new strategies frame a system within which conflicts and opportunities can be resolved enabling economically and socially desirable approaches?

The future is uncertain but not unmanageable. The new strategies must build in the resilience needed to keep people and goods moving regardless of what happens. Ironically the hardest strategy to deliver is probably the continuation of business as usual. The transport industry is still largely focused on delivering growth on an unsustainable trajectory. Attempting to fit more people and goods along increasingly congested and polluted streets, railways and skies in the face of unmanaged competition for dwindling natural resources will face increasing barriers from every side.

The response of many frontline managers to many recent transport authority strategies has been to stay focused on their customers and let the changes take place step by step on the ground. Certainly, in the recent past strategy development at the coal face has been more responsive and effective than the top down strategy ideas. However, even for the managers that are not expecting a technology led transport revolution, it makes sense to have a strategy with a good plan B, and probably Plan C as well.

Delivering an alternative outcome from business as usual will require a different sort of leadership. Government's role could become more of an enabler of everyone else, than the lead problem solver. The focus is less on their public spending than helping others to invest. At the recent Transport Times organised Scottish Transport Summit some delegates expressed surprise at the interest in canals, but Scottish Canals as an organisation have been well ahead of other transport authorities with the business models that involve less public money and more public benefit.

A strategy less driven by transport growth could be driven by efficiency improvement, lifestyle benefits, place making, protectionism or adaptation. Much of the current transport strategy response has been protectionist; such as 'demand management'. Public, and consequently political, perspectives have lagged the understanding of technical and organisational possibilities to build connections around people and places. By failing to communicate the vision of a better future, with better access to opportunity and more attractive competitive places, the new transport ideas have not reached the top of political spending priorities.

If business as usual is not an option, then the most likely alternative, incremental adaptation, could also be a bad deal. Resilience is an expensive and inefficient add on if it is not built in. A bus company that seeks better reliability from within its own circle of control would need far more staff and vehicles than is efficient. A manufacturer would need to hold more stock near to consumers adding to costs.

Better strategy depends on expanding the boundaries which transport authorities are 'able to influence'. How can more people and organisations be empowered to create, design and innovate their own products and services? Who will be the collaboration champions and how can transport authorities foster more open governance models? Translated to the frontline that is more likely to mean giving a customer service or depot manager the autonomy to buy a taxi trip if things go wrong than giving them extra vehicles or staff.

The consultations that TfL, Transport Scotland and others are embarking upon are making the first tentative steps in a direction that could finally put the power back at the front line of delivery. Giving the people who have the capability to take responsibility, the authority and rights they need, could unlock the potential for efficient, flexible, equitable, people focused transport systems.